All too rare... amputee model Aimee Mullins poses for Dazed and Confused magazine.
Non-disabled people are often surprised to find that we really are just like them. One area where this regularly plays out is in fashion for people with physical disabilities. Or, should I say, the lack thereof, because there are almost no designers focusing specifically on designing clothes for people using wheelchairs and other mobility devices, or people with disabilities that may affect limb length and body structure.
Which means that if you want to be fashionable, you are forced to modify clothing because there are no options off the rack.
Such modifications may be necessary for reasons other than just for fashion. For example, wheelchair users are more comfortable in clothing that is not cut for people who spend most of their time standing and walking.
Garments such as skirts and trousers designed for ambulatory people can become twisted and don’t sit or fall right, which makes them uncomfortable, and also changes the line of the garment. No one wants to be sitting around with a skirt that’s gotten all bunched up and wrinkly, because it doesn’t feel nice, let alone look nice.
When it comes to fashion designers, there are some very specific assumptions about the kinds of bodies they are catering for. Those bodies are thin and ambulatory.
And designers who do consider physical disabilities in their work can be more focused on function than form, and end up with garments that perform well for people with specific disability needs, but are not necessarily stylish. Those garments work, and it’s important to have access to them, but they don’t meet an unacknowledged need: the desire to be fashionable.
Individuals with physical disabilities are often labelled ugly and unsightly, and it’s assumed that they feel the same way about themselves.
This leads to the conclusion that their bodies are things that should be covered up and hidden away, rather than displayed. And if any garments are going to be designed for them, those garments should minimise rather than highlight their disabilities. They should create illusions or tricks and do things such as making someone’s legs look longer, or conceal the fact that someone has one arm.
The idea that someone might be comfortable in a disabled body, perhaps even to the point of wanting to show it off, is utterly alien.
The wheelchair user who wants to wear a backless couture gown is an oddity, because such garments are designed for people with nice, normal, beautiful bodies, and of course someone using a wheelchair for mobility doesn’t have a nice body, let alone a beautiful one, right?
Couture garments don’t need to be designed for people with disabilities because people with disabilities don’t really exist in the fashion landscape; they can be ignored, and garments for them can be delegated to lesser designers who focus on the functional, intended to cover, conceal, and minimise frightening bodies that don’t belong in the public eye.
But some people with physical disabilities are very interested in fashion, just like some non-disabled people are. They read fashion blogs, know their designers, they try to attend fashion events, they visit museums and displays of fashion history.
They’re passionate about the garment industry and may be particularly knowledgeable about specific design houses and trends. They’re interested in keeping pace with fashion trends because they love fashion.
And often, they’re barred from participating in it. The designers they love don’t design for them, the venues where fashion events happen aren’t accessible and they’re told they don’t qualify for inclusion in the fashion world because their bodies don’t belong.
Unless you are wealthy and have a physical disability, which is a highly unusual combination, there’s a limited chance of ever having designer garments that will fit you, unless you’re willing to substantially modify a garment off the rack.
Contrast that with the growing market for high-end maternity wear, driven by demand from celebrities and public figures who wanted to be able to go out in pregnancy and look fashionable. The market fed an awareness of pregnant bodies and how to design for them, and created a new fashion niche.
For people with physical disabilities, buying clothes of any form can be an exercise in frustration. Your body should present an interesting challenge to designers. People interested in the craft and construction of clothing should be intrigued by non-normative bodies and the potential they offer.
I want to live in a world where wheelchair users roll the runway along with ambulatory models, where amputees strut alongside people with other kinds of physical disabilities, and where it’s not a stunt, but a genuine integration into the fashion community.
I’d like to see physical disabilities represented in couture because so many people are disabled, and because at least some of them want to be involved in the fashion world.
This post originially appeared on s.e smith's blog This Ain't Livin'.